Various Artists: Phil’s Spectre III

Various_PhilsSpectorIIIMore gold bricks in the wall of soundalikes

Phil Spector’s revolutionary production techniques and monumental chart success in the early ‘60s spawned a lot of imitations, some of which hit, but many more of which passed by virtually unnoticed. Ace Records continues their collection of Wall of Sound tributes and knock-offs with a third volume that’s more varied in quality than the first two. To be sure, there are some tremendous gems here, well worth the price of this disc, but there are also wanna-be productions that have all the earmarks, but not the magic dust that could have made them hits. It’s one thing to have a baion beat, soaring string arrangement, massed instruments, deep echo, and castanets, but it’s quite another to have the Brill Building’s songs, Gold Star’s rooms, and Ronnie Spector’s pipes. Not to mention Jack Nitzche’s arrangements, Larry Levine’s engineering and Phil Spector’s ears; winningly, several of these tracks have the first two of those three.

That said, there are many high points to this collection. “Who Am I” opens with a lonely bass riff and Jerry Ganey’s soulful vocal, rises momentarily to an echoed backing chorus and threatens a full wall of sound, only to fall back to Ganey and the bass. It’s not until 1’22 of teasing has passed that writer-producer (and Righeous Brother) Bill Medley unleashes the full force of the song’s arrangement. Sonny Bono’s rendition of Spector’s sound traces back to his years working directly for the master. 1967’s “It’s the Little Things,” recorded for the soundtrack of Good Times, has the requisite musical elements but truly excels in Bono’s charmingly self-deprecating lyrics. Cher gives it everything as she sings of loving a man who’s not smart or handsome but is her everything. Remembering her speech at Bono’s memorial it’s hard not to get a bit teary when this one plays.

The disc’s biggest surprise is the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s last chart single, “When We Get Married.” Written by Ritchie Cordell (of “Indian Giver,” “Mony Mony” and “I Think We’re Alone Now” fame) under his real name (Richard Rosenblatt), the production of bubblegum legends Jerry Kaszenetz and Jeffry Katz pulls out all the stops, and lead singer Mark Gutkowski leans into every line, so exhausting himself with his outpouring of emotion that he has to stop and take a very audible and dramatic breath at 3’25. Imagine a teenage Ronnie Spector given the chance to sing about her upcoming nuptuals, supported by the harmonies of the Cowsills and backed by a wide stereo version of Phil Spector’s wall of sound. Truly extraordinary.

There are many other treats here, even if they don’t reach the stratospheric heights of the collection’s key cuts. Lesley Gore’s “Look of Love” (written by Brill Building legends Greenwich & Barry) began life as an album track, but in 1964 producer Quincy Jones thickened the production with handclaps, sleigh bells and echo. The folk-rock of the Kit Kats “That’s the Way” is given a deep stereo backing and features a falsetto chorus vocal reminiscent of the Newbeats. There’s more folk-rock in the Ashes’ “Is There Anything I Can Do,” which benefits from the Gold Star sound, courtesy in large part to the engineering of Larry Levine. Yet another Spector alum, arranger Jack Nitzsche, gives Judy Henske the wall of sound treatment for a cover of Shirley and Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll” that rings down the curtain with its forceful climax.

Several producers took Spector’s work too literally for their own good. The Castanets’ “I Love Him” is a by-the-numbers imitation of the Crystals that’s adequate but isn’t the Crystals. Girl group collectors will enjoy this previously unreleased single-tracked vocal version. The Satisfactions’ “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” slows the 1925 tune to a soulful crawl but doesn’t find the groove Spector perfected on “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Better is Alder Ray’s “’Cause I Love Him,” which could pass for a Darlene Love track. Ace has done another fine job of lining up the disciples of Phil Spector and augmenting the music with a 16-page booklet stuffed with photos, sleeve and label reproductions, and detailed liner notes. Everything here is in AM-ready mono except tracks 2, 4, 10, and 23 which are true stereo. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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